Meaningfulness, accident, and absurdity

It is a bitter truth that a single sentence, spoken rashly and without really meaning it, can destroy the whole of your life as you have envisaged to live it.

1. On his first day in a small town, where he had moved after earning his law degree, David Wilson makes a fatal remark. He has just made a few acquaintances when a dog starts howling. Wilson, more thinking out loud than actually making a statement, wishes that he would own one half of the dog; when asked why, he replies: “Then I would shoot my half.” The good townspeople are mystified and horrified by that weird remark, and for the rest of his life (until the events of the plot unfold), he is stuck with his nickname, “Pudd’nhead” Wilson.

That episode, of course, is what kicks off Mark Twain’s novel of that same title. The pattern, however, is more general — a common occurrence with the protagonists of books. Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys tells the story of Fat Charlie, who “was only ever fat for a handful of years, from shortly before the age of ten […] to the age of fourteen”. Still, the unwanted nickname sticks to him. No matter what he tries, or where he moves, “the name would creep in” again. “It was, he knew, irrationally, because his father had given him the nickname, and when his father gave things names, they stuck.” (3)

This is so because, as it soon turns out, his father really is a god, and gods have that kind of power. But that is just a poetic metaphor. Even those of us who do not really believe in gods per se know that such power exists: we might call it bad luck, the harshness of fate, self-inflicted damage, irreversible mistakes, … And when we use these expressions, we cannot help but understand that there is an inexorable reality behind them: a potential course of events that runs us straight into despair, with no return ticket. Some people never encounter it; others may be able to avoid it; but there are always a few who get caught up in it.

2. And the bitter truth is this: it happens not only in books, but also in the real world. Thus Erving Goffmann reports:

Dear Abby: After nearly 20 years of marriage my husband has asked me for a divorce. He says he needs a wife, not a housekeeper.

Two years ago, in the middle of a heated argument I told my husband that his love-making did nothing for me — that I had only been putting on an act.

Abby, it wasn’t exactly the truth. I only said it to hurt him. He hasn’t touched me or kissed me since that day.

I would do anything to have my husband back the way he was. I have a fine home, wonderful children, and I don’t want a divorce. Please tell me what to do.

Quoted in FA, 462.


3. It is an expression of the absurdity of our existence that, occasionally, a rift can suddenly open up, and a single bit of communication like this will create far-reaching, irreversible consequences that affect the whole of one’s life.

On some level, we all know and understand that this possibility lurks under the surface, and may surface at any point in time even in our own, personal biography. And perhaps it is this understanding that induces us to project larger meanings into coincidental events, thereby experiencing them as synchronicities.

By Leif Frenzel

Leif Frenzel is a writer and independent researcher. He has a background in philosophy, literature, music, and information technology. His recent interest is Jungian psychology, especially synchronicities and the relationship between consciousness and the unconscious.

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